Funeral rites represent an important part of collective behaviour in human societies.  According to researchers, humans conducted the earliest burials (i.e. bodies deposited in deliberately excavated graves), deriving from caves in Canaan dating to 90 000–110 000 BP (Before Present).

However, with changes in economic and technological development, the free communal labour and services that were traditionally required for funeral ceremonies have diminished. In most parts of the world today, professional services are required to hold one’s ceremony. The free labour of the community typically involves excavation, touching or cleaning the body itself, building material structures, crowd choreography, gathering offerings, and much more. This type of ritual also embodied a collective social agreement of care, responsibility, and sealing the ‘archive’ of one’s body and spirit.

Now, with the commodification of funeral services and convenience of digital access, it seems that funeral rituals have not only become commodified but turned into a spectacle for entertainment. I use the word ‘entertainment’ lightly but it’s more so to signify the desensitisation we have towards death due to frequency that we see it through the computer’s gaze.

One recent memory I have about this was the reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death. The live television broadcasts and online streams of his ceremony seemed surreal because of how someone’s death could be commodified for digital spectatorship and entertainment. On the one hand, you have people grieving the real person, then on the other you have people grieving the persona, all in real time – physically and digitally.

Three figures emotionally speaking at the funeral service for basketballer Kobe Bryant. The NBC news icon is situated in the bottom-left side of the image.
Image description: Michael Jordan, Vanessa Bryant, and Jimmy Kimmel speaking at Kobe Bryant’s funeral service.

From a sociological perspective, this appears as a subtle erasure towards the collective labour and social bonds with the dead due to modernisation. In the online sphere, businesses market the illusions of a community when in actual reality in order for us to participate online and utilise our power to ‘post’ or ‘comment’ it requires a sense of radical individualism and self-actualisation. And so, without these communal hands-on elements involved in traditional funeral rites, and increased accessibility to viewing livestreams of funeral and memorial services, how does this affect our relationship with the dead and our own sense of mortality?

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